Tramel: Could OU football have thrived under Larry Scott's Pac-16?
Larry Scott lost his job last week. He was Pac-12 commissioner for almost 11 years. The Pac presidents fired him over general fatigue.
The conference was tired of controversy and broken promises, without the vestiges of success. A conference network that didn’t meet financial or promotional assurances. A drought in big-time athletic success. A slip to fifth in status among the Power 5 conferences.
In some ways, it’s remarkable that Scott lasted this long, even receiving a three-year contract extension in 2017.
But in this part of the country, Scott forever will be known as the man who tried to break up the Big 12 and nearly did.
In summer 2010, Scott famously toured the Southwest, recruiting OU, OSU, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Texas to head west and join a Pac-16. Colorado already had pledged to the Pac, and Nebraska announced the next day it was Big Ten-bound. The Big 12 was on the cusp of implosion.
The Pac-16 had enough windsong to lure us Middle Americans. An eight-team East Division, with the Big 12 expatriates plus Arizona State and Arizona, which would have made travel doable. Crossover games against the likes of Southern Cal, Oregon, Washington, Stanford.
The proposed Pac-16 would include massive television markets: No. 2 Los Angeles, No. 5 Dallas, No. 6 San Francisco, No. 10 Houston, No. 12 Phoenix, No. 13 Seattle and No. 16 Denver.
And academic alliances with the likes of Cal-Berkeley, Stanford and UCLA appealed to everyone in the ivory towers.
Most everyone was on board — except Texas. UT’s Longhorn Network was ready to launch, Scott wanted to fold Bevo TV into the fledgling Pac-12 Network and in the end, Texas said no.
A year later, after A&M and Missouri jumped to the Southeastern Conference, and Utah joined Colorado as new Pac-12 members, Scott took another swing at Texas, this time, with more discreteness.
Again, Texas said no. Texas didn’t want the Pac without the Longhorn Network. OU didn’t want the Pac without Texas. The Pac didn’t want OU without Texas.
Ten years ago, Scott released a statement: “We have determined that it is in the best interests of our member institutions, student-athletes and fans to remain a 12-team conference. While we have great respect for all of the institutions that have contacted us, and certain expansion proposals were financially attractive, we have a strong conference structure and culture of equality that we are committed to preserve. With new landmark TV agreements and plans to launch our innovative television networks, we are going to focus solely on these great assets, our strong heritage and the bright future in front of us.”
You know the rest. The Big 12 stabilized with West Virginia and Texas Christian as new members and has mostly thrived. The Pac-12 has mostly shriveled.
Only twice has the Pac-12 placed a team in the football playoff — Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016. Only once since 2008 has a Pac-12 basketball team made the Final Four — Oregon in 2017.
The Pac’s revenues have risen, but not at the rate of the other conferences. In the most recent reports, the Big Ten distributed $55 million to each school, the SEC $45.3 million, the Big 12 about $40 million, the Pac-12 $32 million and the ACC about $30.5 million.
The Pac-12 Network has been mostly a disaster, with distribution problems and revenue shortages. The Pac-16 idea seemed to be a life jacket for Big 12 schools; turns out it was the Pac that needed rescuing.
A decade ago, the Big 12 paid out about $9.5 million per year to its members. The Pac-10 paid out about $9 million per year. Pac-12 Network projections showed that league would pay out about $20 million per year.
But the Big 12 trumped that by sticking together. The Big 12 hasn’t caught the SEC or Big Ten in power and prestige, but it’s clearly positioned itself as the No. 3 league in the Power 5 pecking order.
When COVID-19 threatened to wreck the college football season, the Pac-12 stepped aside and said it wouldn’t play in the autumn. No one seemed to care, and the Pac-12 eventually relented, with a limited schedule that failed to generate much excitement.
The likes of the Sooners and Cowboys and Longhorns out West would have enhanced the Pac, no doubt. But turns out, a Lewis & Clark conference was not necessary for the Southwest schools to thrive, financially and athletically. By any measure, the ‘10s were a great decade for both OU and OSU.
Scott, a marketer with no campus experience, did some good things as commissioner.
The Pac-12 Network raised the profile of the Olympic sports. Scott moved the league football championship game off campus sites to first Santa Clara and now Las Vegas. The basketball tournament, too, is in Vegas and doing well.
But Scott never fixed the constant morass of Pac-12 officiating; major controversies constantly brewed. His $5 million salary was a bane to the academic side of the Pac-12 — even though retired Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was paid $8.5 million in his final season and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby made more than $4 million before a pandemic pay cut.
Last year, when Scott paid out executive bonuses to Pac-12 office administrators just a few weeks before announcing staff layoffs, his fate likely was sealed, Pac-12 observers say.
It all could have been different, had Scott persuaded Texas to head West. At its core, the Pac-12 lacks fan-base zeal, which the Big 12 schools would have provided. A Pac-16 Network would have launched with many more customers, had Oklahomans and Texans been included.
The football success would have been automatic. Basketball would have been enhanced. A Pac-16 could have been a jewel. It also could have been a royal pain in the butt for the Big 12 schools.
We’ll never know. The Pac-16 never materialized, the Big 12 found its footing and Larry Scott is out of a job.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.